Hunger strike begins at Sask. legislature following 635-km suicide prevention trek

Joined by dozens of supporters, Tristen Durocher and Christopher Merasty completed their 635-kilometre 28-day suicide prevention walk from La Ronge to Regina Friday.

Now Durocher, who trekked under the banner “Walking With Our Angels,” has begun a hunger strike in a newly erected tipi on the lawns of the Saskatchewan Legislature.

Dozens of supporters joined Tristen Durocher and Christ Merasty for the final leg of their walk from the Regina weigh scales to the legislative grounds.
Dozens of supporters joined Tristen Durocher and Christ Merasty for the final leg of their walk from the Regina weigh scales to the legislative grounds. Connor O’Donovan / Global News

“We’ve lost over 2,300 people since 2005 alone. This is the tip of a very grim iceberg,” Durocher, 24, told reporters Friday.

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“We deserve better. This country deserves better. Our children deserve better and their children deserve better.”

Data from the Centre for Suicide Prevention shows that between 2000 and 2019, at least 2,891 deaths were the result of suicide in Saskatchewan.

The data shows 239 people died by suicide in 2018 alone.

Durocher, Merasty and the Walking With Our Angels following that has grown to number in the thousands over the course of the journey, are calling for change.

Read more: Advocate calls for legislation to address Saskatchewan’s high Indigenous suicide rate

About 4,000 Canadians die by suicide every year across the country, placing it among the leading causes of death in Canada, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

At 29.7 people per every 100,000, the suicide rate in northwestern Saskatchewan is nearly three times higher than the Canadian national average of 11/100,000, according to a 2019 report from the provincial auditor.

Statistics Canada data shows suicide rates are higher for “some First Nation and Métis communities, especially among youth,” and among “all Inuit regions in Canada.”

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Between 2011 and 2016, the suicide rate among First Nations people was more than three times higher than among the non-Indigenous population. Studies found that there were 24.3 deaths per 100,000 person-years at risk for First Nations, compared to 8 deaths per 100,000 person-years for non-Indigenous people.

Last November, the Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation declared a state of emergency after three children, the youngest of whom was 10 years old, committed suicide in three weeks. In Ochapowace Nation, three people also died by suicide within one month in 2019.

A Statistics Canada report suggested “ongoing impacts of colonization,” including the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop, are linked to the high rates of suicide.

Read more: NDP leader, police chief attend Walking With Our Angels rally held in Saskatoon

Durocher told Global News in a previous interview that the final straw motivating him to launch Walking With Our Angels was the failing of Bill 618, an NDP private members’ bill that would have implemented a suicide strategy.

The bill, spearheaded by Cumberland MLA and northern affairs critic Doyle Vermette, would have required the Saskatchewan Health Authority to consult with both internal departments and non-governmental organizations to help develop a strategy within 180 days.

The bill was voted down by a count of 43-13 on June 19.

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Advocate calls for legislation to address high Indigenous suicide rate

Advocate calls for legislation to address high Indigenous suicide rate

Durocher said he’d like to see an emergency legislative session convened to find a new suicide prevention solution.

The provincial government, meanwhile, commented with a statement Thursday, saying “our government is always open to conversations about how we can make improvements to the challenges of mental health and suicide prevention.”

The statement says that Rural and Remote Health Minister Warren Kaeding has contacted Durocher multiple times to set up a meeting to “further this important conversation.” Durocher has thus far declined.

“It (the meeting) is a possibility. His parameters were that it would be private, there would be no media and it would just be me. I’m not an expert who’s worked with the demographics we’re trying to save for 20 years. Go talk to them. It’s your job,” Durocher said in reference to Kaeding’s request.

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Kaeding also penned a letter, obtained Friday by Global News, to Durocher in which he highlighted the provincial government’s recently published Pillars for Life: Saskatchewan Suicide Prevention Strategy.

The plan pledges $1.2 million in its first year to support its five pillars: specialized supports, training, awareness, means restriction and means safety, and research, surveillance and evaluation.

When asked about the plan Friday, Durocher said he found it inadequate.

“Not only is it vague and meaningless, but there’s no validity and no accountability,” he said. “You can’t even start one mental health and addictions treatment centre for $1.2 million. It was kind of insulting that that number was even brought up in the letter he wrote me.”

Read more: Video shows Samwel Uko escorted out of hospital, Sask. Health Authority completes review

The last leg of the Walking With Our Angels journey took Durocher, Merasty and company from the Regina weigh scales to the Saskatchewan Legislature.

As Durocher reached the top of the legislature steps, he raised a fist to applause from onlookers below.

He then played a song on his fiddle — an instrument he’s kept close by his side since his youth.

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“I played at my first funeral when I was 10 years old. I could have been playing at a playground but I was playing beside a hole in the ground,” he later said in a speech.

While the walk may be over, Durocher says his campaign won’t be complete until he sees concrete policy action.

“I’ll be living on tea, and prayers and hope. And that’s all that’s going to be going on here.”

Wascana Centre authorities watch as a tipi is erected on the lawns of the Saskatchewan Legislature.
Wascana Centre authorities watch as a tipi is erected on the lawns of the Saskatchewan Legislature. Connor O’Donovan / Global News

The tipi he’ll be living in, set up quickly by Merasty and a number of supporters, was done under the watchful gaze of Wascana Centre authorities.

As the tipi was going up, Durocher has a number of conversations with both a Wascana Centre Special Constable and a Provincial Capital Commission official.

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“[They told me] there are bylaws for demonstrations on this lawn. ‘You can’t have permanent structures.’ They said that’s a violation of their bylaws and they have the right to remove us,” Durocher said. “We walked through hail, we walked through thunder, we walked through the shouts of racist pricks to be here. I’m not scared of a bylaw.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.

The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.

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